What hope do we have when even female breadwinners like Paloma Faith have to put their men first? | Barbara Ellen

Paloma Faith does her best to keep it real. The singer-songwriter’s new album, The Glorification Of Sadness, is about break-up struggles. Her 2021 documentary, As I Am, sparked a conversation about the incompatibility of art and motherhood.

Now, in a recent interview, talking of how she split from her partner two years ago partly because of the demands of having children.

She said: “Men like to be put first, and resentment builds.” Away from Faith (who’s clear that she’s on very good terms with her ex, and no one else was involved), this statement may have sent shockwaves through the female heart. Is there still no such thing as a wholly supportive man? Is this really true, even now?

I can’t believe I’m asking this in 2024. By now, 21st-century women should be batting away with big sticks liberal, modern-minded men who “get it”. But perhaps it’s a question that never properly goes away. And maybe some women secretly dread the answer.

Right now, men and women alike may be astounded at the notion of, say, any working parent thinking they have any chance of being “put first” for the foreseeable — if (they fear) ever again. Is there still truth to men feeling rattled, even emasculated, by a woman whose chief focus lies elsewhere? This isn’t just about the sexual politics of date night (that time-honoured relationship Elastoplast): it’s a seething hornet’s nest of socioeconomic gender issues, including how earnings relate to status, in and out of households. With the gender pay gap to contend with, women don’t routinely earn more than their spouses. However, it’s far from unheard of: reaching an all-time high of 30.6% in the US in 2021. And that’s where things can get sticky.

While women are thought to enjoy the success of their male partners, when the situation is reversed some men feel insecure, diminished and resentful. In tough times, you’d think men would be relieved that women are stepping up economically. Yes, but only to a carefully calibrated degree (you guessed it: women still earning less than them). One study found that men are not always verbally expressing these kinds of anxieties and resentments, but they’re still ticking away subconsciously.

Even men who like being with alpha women don’t want to be outperformed. Last year’s hit Netflix film Fair Play examined this: the power imbalance inherent in a woman daring to do better than her man. The shock. The bruised, fragile male ego. The rage… Pass the gender-based popcorn!

Far from this being an entertaining fiction, there’s plenty to suggest that such women do end up punished. Higher earning women still incur the smirking disapproval of society (some couples even resort to lying about the man’s lower earnings). The psychodrama also leaks into household tasks and childcare. It’s a sitcom-worthy truism that men get praised for chores normally undertaken by women unasked and unthanked; and that any domestic tasks tend to get logged and itemised by some men as “evidence” of their great sacrifice and suffering, for which surely a medal is forthcoming.

Back in the real world, 45% of British female breadwinners still do the majority of household tasks, compared with 12.5% of male breadwinners. Indeed, women routinely undertake significantly more housework and childcare; even when men work less. Higher earning women are also more likely to be cheated on and more liable to divorce.

While statistics can be ambiguous (for instance, divorce figures could relate to women having more financial freedom to leave), there’s still a sense of high-achieving women needing to be humbled, to be put in their “rightful” place, that lazy/cheating men are asserting themselves to readjust what their conditioning tells them is an unnatural gender imbalance. Perhaps the bigger surprise is the idea that some women end up colluding in this; that women could be doing far more than their fair share of housework and childcare in some bizarre attempt to appease “the man of the house” and compensate for upending traditional male-female dynamics.

Is this where we are? You’d have thought it got peak-creepy at the turn of the millennium with the “Surrendered Wives” baloney (for the blissfully unaware: mainly US women cos-playing twittering, apron-clad domestic servitude). Looking around, one notes that the Mrs American pageant (furthering female stereotypes since 1977!) is still going strong.

However, it seems many ordinary women may also be frantically trying to keep the peace, hiding their achievements in a pile of juice boxes and dirty laundry, sublimating their own needs in a grisly display of ersatz femininity. Women who are anxious about scaring off (or turning off) their men, and so make themselves smaller; as small as they can possibly be.

Where’s the hope? Obviously, in younger, wised-up people coming through, though it’s becoming clear that it could take a while for even younger men to shake off their conditioning and get over the shock of being displaced, and that old-style attitudes are still being internalised and acted upon, and not just by men. Maybe the tide will only turn when there are women weaponising their resentment. Come the revolution, we too will strop about being “put first”.

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist

The Guardian